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Hired hands: Minnesota’s struggling dairy farmers turn to Latino immigrants for help

Craig Gjerde, left, and Paul Gjerde
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Craig Gjerde, left, and Paul Gjerde run a dairy operation near Sunburg in west-central Minnesota.

Seventeen years ago, Paul and Craig Gjerde went all in on the dairy operation they run with their father in west-central Minnesota, expanding their herd from 125 cows to 300 and building a barn and milking parlor.

The Gjerdes have milked their share of cows and can do so if they need to, but with so many other duties – growing crops, feeding the animals, managing the farm’s finances – the men wouldn’t be able to run their operation efficiently without a few hired hands.

Yet, in recent years, finding people willing to work on the dairy farm, with its twice-a-day-milkings, physical demands and odd hours, has been difficult. Fortunately for the Gjerdes, they have found what they need in the Latino immigrant population that lives in the Willmar area. These days, four Latino employees milk the cows in the afternoon, clean the stalls and milking machines and then milk the cows again in the early morning, around 2:30 a.m.

“We need them,” Paul Gjerde said of his crew. “I don’t know how we would do it without them.”

It wasn’t always this way. The brothers remember when high school or college students would stop by, looking for work baling hay or doing the other tough jobs on farms. That hasn’t happened for 20 years; the only people willing to work on their farm these days, the brothers say, are Latinos, new to the country and looking to make a living.

Willing to do the work

The hub of the Gjerde enterprise is Paul Gjerde’s farm site five miles south of Sunburg, an old Norwegian settlement that still celebrates Syttende Mai (Norway’s independence day) and whose sole café still serves Klub (a Norwegian potato dumpling) every day.

From a distance, the farm is but a cluster of buildings that fades into an endless horizon of snow-covered fields dotted by groves of trees. Years ago, it was one of many dairy farms around here; now, it’s the only one in Kandiyohi County’s Arctander Township.

On a recent cold December day, Michelle Rodriguez hooked cows up to machines in a 16-stall milking parlor, eight cows on either side of her. Originally from El Salvador, Rodriguez has been working on the farm for about five years. She grew up on a small farm with chickens and pigs, so the surroundings here are comforting, the work familiar.

“I like the cows. And the work – it’s not too hard for me,” she said in halting English. She added, with a laugh, “the weather is bad, though. Driving (in the snow) is bad! But otherwise it’s fine.”

With her mother and two sisters living in Willmar, and two brothers in New York, Rodriguez said she had no plans to return to Central America, where her father remains. Minnesota was safe, with more opportunities to earn a paycheck, she said.

The Gjerde dairy operation near Sunburg.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The Gjerde dairy operation near Sunburg.
Nathan Hulinsky, a University of Minnesota Extension educator, said many dairy farmers, navigating a tight labor market, have found a source of workers in the Latino community.

“A lot of Hispanics don’t seem to mind the physical labor,” he said. “They are willing to take that job at a price that works for both sides, whereas I think some in the non-immigrant workforce maybe say, ‘I can go uptown and get the same money and an easier job.’”

The construction industry is one of the main competitors for dairy farmers who are looking for workers, Hulinsky said. Another one, at least in this region of the state, is turkey processing – namely the Jennie-O Turkey Store plant in Willmar. The Gjerdes were paying their workers $12.50 an hour last month, roughly comparable to what they believed was Jennie-O’s $13.50 wage for unskilled labor. (Recent job postings showed Jennie-O offering a starting wage of $14 for general production workers.)

To work for the Gjerdes, workers must provide a Social Security Number or a Green Card, a federal document that allows immigrants to live and work in the United States. A survey for the National Milk Producers Federation showed that Latinos make up about half the workforce at dairy farms around the country. Statistics for Minnesota were not available.

An uncertain future

In addition to finding workers, many challenges perplex the small dairy farmer: this year’s unusually wet growing season, competition from large-scale dairy operations, changing consumer habits and, perhaps most significantly, volatile milk prices. (In 2018, the price per-hundredweight of milk – how dairy farmers are paid – hovered around $14 or $15, down about $10 from record highs reached four years earlier. (It inched back up in 2019 and reached about $19 in December).

The stress is showing. According to the state Department of Agriculture, Minnesota had 2,763 dairy farms at the start of 2019 and had 2,536 in November – a drop of about 8 percent. (The agency bases its numbers on dairy farm licenses).

Obert Gjerde, Paul and Craig’s 80-year-old father, still helps on the farm. It’s been a good life – challenging but rewarding. But he’s not sure he’d recommend it to his grandchildren – not now, anyway, with commodity prices the way they are. “You worked hard and you did well,” he said in summing up his life’s credo. “It’s not necessarily that way anymore.”

The future of dairy farming, perhaps, can be found a few miles south of the Gjerde farm, where acquaintances run an 1,800-head operation. Or a bit to the west, where a massive dairy operation milks about 8,100 cows a day.

The brothers don’t want to sell their herd or do anything else. They do wonder, however, about trying something different – perhaps selling bottled milk to the wealthy cabin owners who live on lakes throughout the region. It will take some creativity to survive. They have also talked about joining a recent trend in dairy farming: robotic milking.

For now, they hang on, thankful for the Latino workers who have helped to keep their operation afloat, who have proven to be reliable, who have made friends with Paul Gjerde’s children. “They’re good workers. They show up on time and they’re big on cleanliness,” he said. “These guys are really good.”

Comments (41)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/02/2020 - 09:51 am.

    When you write articles on struggling farmers, you really need to ask them if they voted for Trump. Just like with the tariffs, Trumps’s policies directly contradict what these guys need for their business.

    Seriously, do farmers and those dependent on farming think “well, this guy is going to destroy my livelihood, but the Fox News says the liberals and Ilhan Omar are taking my guns away and imposing Sharia law so i’ll vote for him”?

    • Submitted by Robert Ahles on 01/02/2020 - 10:56 am.

      Trump wants to buy Republican votes for the mid-term elections by providing a $12 billion bailout for farmers hurt by the tariffs now coming from China Those tariffs have destroyed many markets for our farmers that may never get restored. I would assume most farmers would want trade and not taxpayer aid.

      Trump’s tariffs are really taxes on all Americans and do nothing to lower health care costs or improve our roads and bridges. Some experts believe that these tariffs on just China alone will cost Americans close to $125 billion. I’m shocked that no one from the GOP is doing anything to stop it.

      Average Americans now get to pay TWICE. First to cover the welfare bailout to farmers and Second to pay for the higher cost of food and consumer goods due to the new tariffs. Will consumers get a welfare check when the prices of food go up due to tariffs, spending on the farmers’ bailouts, and inflation?

      Social and economic progress occurs in America when we embrace optimistic leadership and treat each other with respect and dignity, not insults and name calling. I would speculate that if Trump was impeached, a more stable president would be in office and that would be good news to the markets. I also think that someone putting REAL experts in economics on the cabinet, not imposing tariffs, having better relations with other countries, etc, would all have a positive impact on the markets as well.

      • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 01/02/2020 - 01:16 pm.

        “I would assume most farmers would want trade and not taxpayer aid.”

        I guess you’d have to define taxpayer aid (Republicans call it Free Stuff when its someone other than them) because as long as I can remember we’ve been subsidizing farmers. Milk price supports, crop insurance, subsidies for corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice, soil conservation subsidies right on down the the Rural Electrification Act. A government check is a natural to a farmer in the US as is the sun rising in the east. And that 12 billion from Trump is actually 20 billion, they’re calling it Trump Money. Checks as large $100,000.00 are not uncommon, for some farmers they’re actually doing better than if they actually had to harvest and sell their crops.

        I think at the end of the day we’ve been sending checks to farmers for so long that they just assume its their right, not a check from the rest of us.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/02/2020 - 05:42 pm.

        Correct Pat. In journalism in general & in MinnPost in particular, the obvious question is NEVER asked of farmers and rural Americans.

        It is shocking, dismaying, & frustrating.

    • Submitted by M Olson on 01/02/2020 - 10:58 am.

      Excellent idea Pat, where does the rubber meet the road? So many contradictions, so little time.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/02/2020 - 01:56 pm.

      “Seriously, do farmers and those dependent on farming think “well, this guy is going to destroy my livelihood, but the Fox News says the liberals and Ilhan Omar are taking my guns away and imposing Sharia law so i’ll vote for him”?”

      To a certain extent, you’re right. I don’t think Trump supporters are willing to listen to, let alone believe, that his policies are destructive to them (look at the pro-Trump comments here: rote recitations of figures that amount to an extended and repeated chorus of “la la la not listening!”). What is important for Trump supporters generally, and not just those in rural areas, is that he repeats the right hatreds. Sharia law, guns, and some other generalized anti-big government grievances keep them in the Trump camp.

      Immigration is a little more problematic. I think there is theoretical support for Trump’s nativist policies but when you get down to cases (“That nice Mr. Garcia who has the restaurant and who always gives tacos to the hockey team”), it gets personal. The farmers and agricultural businesses who depend on immigrant labor also have issues. Sure, keep them out of the country, but once we do that, who’s going to milk the cows and dress the chickens?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/03/2020 - 12:33 pm.

      Yes, but it’s not just about voting for Trump. We can also ask if these folks are voting to attack Metro areas and promoting the “divide”? I have to say my problem isn’t so much about Trump support as it is the notion that my values and lifestyle are somehow “harming” rural MN. When I see these folks who depend on my dollars for everything from health care to highways send Republicans to St. Paul who attack my services and transportation spending, THAT’S close to home and has nothing to with Trump.

      I’m not criticizing these diary farmers, I wish them well. But I think we need recognize the unnecessary frustration and hostility that’s been emerging from rural Republican politics for a years now. I don’t see how that ends well for farmers.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/03/2020 - 03:39 pm.

        Agreed – its not just Trump. He’s just part of an us vs them urban/rural divide that seems to motivate rural voters.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/04/2020 - 10:45 am.

          And I’ll add that we can the effect of Republican divisive politics here in these comment thread over the last couple of years. Myself and I suspect Mr. Terry are urban/suburban liberals who for years cared about and supported farmers and rural MN/America. The reason they’re so heavily subsidized in the first place is because we supported those subsidies.

          Five or ten years ago articles like this were have provoked nothing but concern and sympathy, and efforts to help. You’ll notice that now whenever an article like this appears almost anywhere, we have a very different reaction and conversation. Divisive Republican politics have driven this change of attitudes, pointless and unnecessary attacks on “liberal city folk” have driven a toxic political narrative that is doing more harm than good for rural constituents. I hope rural voters begin to realize the suicidal nature of electing politician who promise to attack urban liberals one way or another. And I hope that these rural voters also notice that when the rubber hits the road, more often than not, their Republican politicians opt for “small” govment and tax cuts instead of the support and subsidy they promise on the campaign trail. Dayton had to fight like a pit bull to push out more rural spending than Republicans wanted, and even then they rolled it back and spent more time trying to nullify his veto’s than serving their constituents. Republican cuts under Pawlenty did far more damage to rural MN than any gay couple that managed to get married… which is by the way… zero damage.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/02/2020 - 02:40 pm.

    Yep its complicated, As an old eastern Wisconsin boy we would bail hay for $1/hr back in the 60’s, and work on our uncle’s farm during the summer months, I think its the all or nothing (black/white, build a wall) thinking of Trump and his ilk, when reality its 90% grey 5 % B 5% W. Apparently these farmers Paul & Craig, aren’t overly concerned with the supposed “rapists and murders”! The longer term question(s) are who takes over when Paul and Craig move out or on from the business? Rural areas are worried about net migration out, but seem to be voting against net migration in when those folks aren’t of proper skin and culture. The answer is somewhere in the middle, the same place it was when our forebears migrated. There is plenty of room in America for immigrants, they will help America become stronger and their relatives etc. in the old country become stronger as well, that’s called a win-win, unfortunately not part of the Trump play book, where someone has to lose, and Trump has to win.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/02/2020 - 09:51 pm.

      Yeah, it’s kind of weird, in a related story the fact that we’re losing population has been in the news as a big story for days now, but nobody connects to federal policy that keeping 400k people out of the country. They just keep saying there’s a decrease in international immigration like it’s just happening out of nowhere. So instead of talking about immigration reform that gets immigrants we need into the country, we’re talking a wall. Well, actually, I haven’t been hearing to much about the wall lately.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/03/2020 - 03:19 pm.

        Honestly, we should also be asking what immigrants we need. While all the politicians want the nice, well-educated to fill mostly high skill jobs, claiming that there aren’t enough Americans to do them (after starving the education system for decades and celebrating ignorance as beautiful!), what we really need are people willing to do the work that’s described in this article. People willing to work their way up from the bottom.

        So many Americans rant about the immigrants taking “their jobs,” but the long and short of it is that those same Americans aren’t willing to do those jobs. And, quite frankly, if we stop making it so damned lucrative to look the other way while businesses hire undocumented workers (and then throw them under the bus when they get caught), it would be a win-win for the workers–wages would be forced to be more reasonable because employers couldn’t extort their undocumented workers. Now, businesses might have to live with less profit, but they’ll still profit.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/06/2020 - 04:28 pm.

          The wages won’t go up for those jobs and they won’t get filled by citizens even if they do. The crops will just rot in the field.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/03/2020 - 12:48 pm.

      In contrast, when I looked into emigrating to Canada several years ago (I was already too old to be a preferred immigrant), I found that Canada gives immigration preference to people who have experience in agriculture and would be willing to work on a farm or ranch.

  3. Submitted by Elise Anderson on 01/02/2020 - 04:39 pm.

    Please contact me. I will work. All I ask is a clean sleeping area with no cigarette smokers anywhere.

  4. Submitted by Greg Smith on 01/02/2020 - 09:35 pm.

    Another round of comments from the echo chamber claiming to know what the farmersthink, and know how better to run fheir business

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/03/2020 - 12:21 pm.

      Well, I assume what the Farmers are saying is what they think, I’m not reading any minds. They say they support Trump and think he’s doing a good job.

      I don’t pretend to know how to run a farm, but I’m not the one relying on Trump subsidies and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. This is what the farmers are telling us, it’s not something the “gallery” is making up. I don’t anyone telling farmers how run their farms, I just see some people connecting some dots here and there.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/03/2020 - 01:37 pm.

      I don’t think anyone here is claiming to know what farmers think. Rather, I think we are trying to understand how they think. We keep getting these articles about how Trump’s policies are terrible for farmers, but yet they keep voting for him. I am trying to understand the disconnect.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/02/2020 - 10:03 pm.

    On another note, when the deficit hit a record level the other day (who saw THAT coming when Republicans cut billions in taxes?) it was also reported that farm subsidies hit an all time high as well, contributing billions of dollars to the new deficit. What’s weird is that this is NOT what rural Americans voted for- record deficits and farm subsidy levels…. and this NOT what Trump promised, it’s the exact opposite. Yet these folks keep saying that Trump follows through on his promises? I just don’t get it.

    At any rate I wish these guys the best and hope things work out for them. But Republicans will never roll out any policies or programs that benefit anyone but huge corporate farms, and actually that’s where most of the subsidies are going. If anyone want policies that preserve or promote these small guys, they’re only going to get those policies from urban liberals who care about that.

  6. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 01/03/2020 - 08:42 am.

    A bit off topic, but Bloomberg News reports that 40% of farm profits this year are coming from Government Checks. 40%! is taxpayer money! Donald is basically buying their silence to help his re-election with taxpayer money.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/03/2020 - 03:22 pm.

      That is the honest-to-God truth. It’s only “welfare” and “bad” if the receiver is urban, non-white, and/or a single mother.

  7. Submitted by Christopher Johnson on 01/04/2020 - 02:29 pm.

    Not once in this article do these farmers insinuate that they support Trump and I guarantee they will pick trade any day over bailouts! Not in their nature.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/04/2020 - 05:05 pm.

      Well, we don’t know about these farmers, but somebody is and has been collecting billions and billions of dollars in farm subsidies for decades. Nobody drops that money on them against their will, they have to apply for it. And Trump has stopped trade… if you prefer trade, why are you STILL supporting Trump the guy who kills it?

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/04/2020 - 06:40 pm.

      Why folks believe that Trump and farmers are hand and glove: A change in support will probably cause a change in perception, until then we live with a perceived reality, (true or not) that they are fine, being on agriculture welfare! Change the perception, don’t cash those $28B checks! So far $28B and counting vs. $10.2B for the auto bailout which was paid back w/interest. Farmers going to pay it back w/interest?
      PS: Got nothing against farmers, did a bunch as a kid.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/05/2020 - 05:36 am.

      The problem is writers of articles like this DON’T ASK farmers if they support Don Trump.

      Journalism is about asking the obvious questions. We expect better of MinnPost.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/07/2020 - 12:04 pm.

      Are you kidding? Farmers are the biggest freeloaders around. Its all about subsidies and bailouts.

  8. Submitted by Lee Wenzel on 01/05/2020 - 07:11 am.

    We read Paul and Craig’s opinions about Latinos which is positive but still a judgment. We don’t read about Michelle’s opinion about who is a them for her. Is there a racist tilt to the story in the perspective from how tribal judgments are presented?

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/05/2020 - 10:24 am.

    Well, another thing that I just noticed is actually kind of weird, this article is classified under the “New Americans” heading? What’s up with that? It’s story told almost entirely from these American farmers perspective… are THEY “new” Americans? That’s kinda like creating a category called: “Black Americans” and then writing a story about a white guy who has a black friend or two. And it looks like Minnpost got a grant of some kind from someone to do this.

  10. Submitted by Ann Haase on 01/05/2020 - 10:25 am.

    Your important and interesting article reminds me that I often wonder if the country should do more to protect local, in-state farmers by somehow discouraging, limiting, corporate control / ownership of state farms…across the country. Hmmm…….?

  11. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/06/2020 - 01:58 pm.

    More bad news for the dairy community, starting to look like hemorrhaging, the trends seem to bear a continued ill wind as well.

    • Submitted by Laura Summers on 01/07/2020 - 03:03 pm.

      I’m hearing via intermediaries who read the Washington Post that both Borden and Dean Foods have filed the necessary papers for bankruptcy protection. Together they account for 13.5% of milk sales, said to have fallen by 6% over the past 4 years.

  12. Submitted by Andi Egbert on 01/06/2020 - 03:01 pm.

    Thank you for the article! Suggestion: Perhaps you could have substituted
    “[folks]” for “guys” in the final quote–especially considering that one of the farmworkers profiled was a woman.

  13. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 01/07/2020 - 09:26 am.

    Wow. Lot of sour milk being spilt by the lefties here.

    A common sense accommodation can and should be made for a guest worker program. Seasonal and temporary work visas can be granted, with the stipulation that such status in no way changes the immigration status of the worker, and the worker must return to their home country at least once per year to re-apply for a visa.

    The visa must also stipulate the worker is not eligible for any public social services, which shouldn’t be a problem since they’re here to earn money.

    Boom. Done.

    • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 01/07/2020 - 10:15 am.

      What explains that exclusionary and punitive impulse among so many conservatives? Banning these workers from public services serves no rational interest. Workers provide value to the economy regardless of national origin, ethnicity or skin color.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/07/2020 - 10:20 am.

      Appears to be a narrow-minded perspective: Lots of us don’t agree with that right wing philosophy. It fails 100% to understand why folks are pushing north of the border in the first place. Perhaps those that agree with you should have the SOL changed from: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” , to, I got mine, screw you if I am going to help you get yours?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/07/2020 - 12:05 pm.

      Ok, now go convince Trump.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/07/2020 - 05:58 pm.

      Not. Going. To. Happen.

      GOP politicians like the immigration issue, and this will solve part of the problem, as far as economic immigrants. So it’s a no go.

      I don’t know why Dems don’t push for E-verify, a guest worker program (like we had in the 50’s), and enforced employer sanctions.

  14. Submitted by richard owens on 01/07/2020 - 10:12 am.

    The farm vote is currently a fear response to weather, markets and their financial viability.

    It doesn’t help to shame farmers who may have voted for Trump.

    They are afraid and Trump thrives on FEAR.

  15. Submitted by Gerry Anderson on 01/07/2020 - 08:50 pm.

    Interesting the negative comments about farm subsidiaries. They keep the food on your table artificially cheaper. Removing them would make it harder for people of lower income struggle even more to put food on the table.

    Most don’t understand the complexity of the entire agriculture system.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/08/2020 - 10:29 am.

      That’s a myth, or more accurately, a falsehood put out to justify those subsidies. Farm subsidies have no effect on food prices.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/08/2020 - 11:10 am.

      GA, perhaps its not as negative as it appears to be. From this perspective it has to do with starting a trade war that harms if not destroys a profitable farm market economy, and then having to bail it out. A double idiot move from this perspective. Experience suggests that once that market has been lost it will probably never come back as it was, This suggests that farmers will become or have become permanent welfare recipients because of Trumps misguided actions, and their support for those misguided actions. Sorry to be the bearer of the bad news. You did notice the 2 large milk companies going into bankruptcy, Single data points or trends? The coal companies have pretty much turned to trends.

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